The Crisis of American Empire and the Presidency of Donald Trump

Anthony Monteiro

The United States is in the throes of an unprecedented, indeed historic, political crisis. In many ways this crisis is an existential crisis of the political system and the system of bourgeois democratic rule. In short the rulers cannot rule in the old way, and the ruled refuse to be ruled in the old ways. However, the people do not have the capacity to yet change the power equation in their favour. We, therefore, are in a stalemate.

The drama of the political crisis has reached a new stage. Trump’s announcement that he was withdrawing all US troops from Syria and half of them from Afghanistan led to the resignation of his Secretary of Defense James Mattis and an outpouring of criticism from generals, the mainstream media and political commentators. Mattis gave notice that he would be leaving his post at the end of February, Trump fired him immediately. As the Mueller investigation was moving forward and many hoped to a conclusion, on January 15, 2019 The New York Times published an article claiming that they had information that would show that Trump was an agent of Putin and Russia, a power deemed hostile by the United States. New York Times reported that the FBI, in 2017, launched an investigation of President Trump “to consider whether the president’s own actions constituted a possible threat to national security” and specifically “whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests.” The New York Times and Washington Post are claiming that the Russians put Trump in the White House.

Recent events in foreign policy, including the recent summit with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un, take place against the backdrop of a daily assault upon Trump by almost the entire corporate media, including The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC and the Public Broadcasting Network. Calls for his removal from office are now louder and angrier than over the past two years. There are even calls for a coup d’état to save “our democracy” and “our way of life”, as recently indicated in the recent book by fired FBI head Andrew McCabe. The title of his book tells what the top elements of the state think of Trump: The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump.

Impeachment in the US legal and political system is the first step to removing a president for alleged crimes and misdemeanours while in office. Impeachment is a process of bringing an indictment. The lower house of the Congress, the House of Representatives, brings it, where the Democrats have the majority. However, to remove a President from office it would take a two-thirds majority vote of the upper house the Senate, where the Republicans have a strong majority. While Trump could be impeached it is doubtful he would be removed from office. But the demand from the media, the intelligence services, including the CIA, the FBI, the National Intelligence Agency and others, the Democratic Party and wide sections of the intelligentsia, liberals, many conservatives, socialists, and social democrats, continues unabated. Trump’s presidency has literally been criminalized. In spite of this coalition of anti-Trump forces, Trump holds on to 90% of Republican voters, close to 50% of Independent voters. His poll numbers range between 39% and 45%, which is respectable for modern US presidents. So while the elites are calling for his removal he remains relatively popular. To the question why these attacks, I believe the answer lies in his statements and actions in the field of foreign policy.

The financial collapse and the Great Recession, which followed, is the immediate backdrop of the current crisis. It is estimated that something close to $20 trillion were in one or another way transferred to the banks and multinational corporations from the government to save them, while the working and middle classes faced austerity policies, unemployment, lost their homes, many driven into poverty and other forms of social and economic catastrophe. The capitalists have recovered, and are better off than before the crisis, but the people have not. The stock exchange has registered historic highs, yet about 50% of the American people are in official poverty or very close to it. For Black Americans the situation is far worse with close to 75% in or near poverty.

The 2016 Presidential election and the election of Donald Trump brought to the fore the political contradictions between the ruling elite and the masses of people in ways not seen in over 70 years. Trump had never run for office, he was a maverick who at times supported Democrats and at other times Republicans. In America’s two party duopoly neither party is progressive, each pursues permanent war policies and austerity for the working people. Each party upheld the system of neoliberal globalization. The Democrats have branded themselves the party of social liberalism and issues that appeal mainly to the petit bourgeoisie and the upper middle classes. Hilary Clinton campaigned on issues of abortion rights, LGBTQ rights and general identity policy stances. She upheld many of the worst aspects of the neocon policies. Her policies like the Republicans advanced deindustrialisation, breaking up of unions, international trade pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans Pacific Pact (TPP). While the trade union leadership almost unanimously supports Democrats they have been rewarded with these trade pacts and austerity policies and permanent war. The Republicans over the last thirty years has become the party of the majority of white Americans, a good part of them being white workers. They voted Republican for many reasons including anti-Black and anti-civil rights attitudes, anti-immigrant platforms and conservative social values with respect to women’s rights and LGBTQ issues.

The question that must be answered is what is it about Trump that has produced this type of response. In short it is his stated goal of retreating from many of the most aggressive dimensions of US empire policies. Let’s look at part of his record on foreign policy. Throughout the 2016 campaign and as president he has argued that NATO was too expensive, that it was obsolete and signaled that the US was prepared to leave it. He called for détente with Russia while the vast majority of the elites are ramping up a new Cold War with Russia. He was excoriated for his Helsinki summit with Putin. Second, his meeting in Singapore with Kim Jung Un leader of North Korea and opening up a new relation with that nation. Also he demanded that military exercise against North Korea be halted. Last year nine such exercises were canceled and continue. He called for US forces to be removed from South Korea and positively assessed the prospects of negotiation with North Korea over its nuclear weapons and missiles. Third, while he has pursued a trade war with China, which has been put on hold for three months while negotiations go forward, an agreement seems to have been reached. Trump has refused to adopt policies of military confrontation over Taiwan and China’s action in the South China Sea. Trump’s first act upon becoming President was to rescind the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership), a pact that would have excluded China. Then there is the proposed removal of 2000 US troops from Syria. This is highly significant. During the campaign Trump stated that he rejected the policies of regime change and intervention, hence of permanent war, especially in the Middle East. This is a major break with the policy of the Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barak Obama Administrations. Over the past 17 years $6 trillion dollars have been spent and government and nations destroyed and close to 1.5 million people killed. In Syria alone since 2011 600,000 have been killed and 15 million people displaced. In Iraq conservative estimates put the number at 600,000 dead. Trump rejected Hilary Clinton’s proposal to confront Russia in Syria and to establish a no fly zone there, which would have meant war with Russia. By proposing to remove the troops Trump acknowledged the legitimacy of the Assad government and thus its right to ask for assistance from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

In saying all of this it must quickly be added that Trump does not operate in a political vacuum. Powerful institutional forces, including the intelligence services and bureaucratic forces connected to them, the military and its top leadership, powerful lobbies such as the influential Israeli lobby, the two main political parties and the pro Wall Street and pro Pentagon forces within each party, regional political forces, for example those in Florida connected to anti-Cuba, anti-socialist and counter-revolutionary forces who hold powerful political sway in that state. And of course the billionaire class who for the moment comfortably operate within the framework of US hegemony and empire. However, even here there are signs of rethinking the war policies of past Administrations. Hence, short of a radical toppling of the existing ruling elite no single political leader, not even the President of the United States, has unmitigated sway over foreign policy.

These realities go a distance in explaining the Trump policies on Iran and Venezuela. Each has its unique logic and is shaped by specific and powerful political forces in the United States. Iran policy and the withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran is clearly to appease pro-Israeli (in particular pro-Netanyahu elements) and the most reactionary segments of Zionists in the US and Israel. Similarly the ill-conceived actions (which are at a stalemate) against Venezuela are clearly to appease Florida senator Marco Rubio and to guarantee his support for Trump in the 2020 election. Even with these policies it is safe to argue that no president since the start of the Cold War has gone as far as Trump to dismantle US hegemonic ambitions and policies and especially the war policies as has Donald Trump. As such he represents in contradictory ways an opportunity for peace forces to mount new efforts against the US Empire and especially its military arm.

The question that seeks an answer is what is Trumpism. I argue that Trump represents a disruptive force in terms of US war and empire strategy. His policies are both against traditional Cold War, regime change and empire policies (though not in all cases, for example Venezuela). As the US president he represents in broad terms imperial retreat and as such he is perhaps the most pro-peace President since John F Kennedy. Rather than his words or those of those in his Administration we have to look at his action. Gareth Porter, investigative journalist and historian, asks the question “Could Trump take down the American empire”. Porter answers, “But Trump’s unorthodox approach has already emboldened him to challenge the essential logic of the U.S. military empire more than any previous president. And the final years of his administration will certainly bring further struggles over the issues on which he has jousted repeatedly with those in charge of the empire.”

Richard Haass president of the prestigious Council on Foreign Affairs writes in a recent edition of Foreign Affairs magazine, an essay entitled, “How a World Order Ends and What Comes in Its Wake?” His conclusion, (not the same as what I am arguing) is that the US must manage the transition from a unipolar US dominated world to a multipolar world. Other commentators observe that the US dollar is increasingly losing dominance in world trade and is being challenged by several other international currencies. This could make the US military empire unaffordable if the US dollar ceases to have a privileged position in world trade and finance.

Trump’s policies of imperial retreat from the US military empire goes hand in hand with his attacks upon by the US political establishment and the intelligence services and the top brass of the Pentagon, which have upheld these policies.

Yet the forces in the US state that oppose Trump are fomenting a new Cold War. This includes the majorities of the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties. It centres upon defining Russia as an existential threat to the US. With it a new McCarthyism is being fomented and along with it threats to what remains of free speech and the right to dissent.

We are in a unique moment in US political history. Uncertainty prevails. This is even more pronounced given the absence of a people’s movement for radical change and independent parties, including mass communist and socialist parties capable of motivating mass movements for peace.

Note: Anthony Monteiro is a former member of the Central Committee of the CPUSA. Formerly, a professor of African American studies at Temple University, he is a leading scholar of W.E.B. Du Bois and has been very active in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and black liberation struggles in America.

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